For the last eight years, those looking for wholesale changes to Missouri’s public school system have been thwarted by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Nixon, a Democrat, has opposed voucher programs that would have allowed public money to pay tuition at private schools. He’s spoken out against changes to teacher tenure laws or basing teacher pay on student achievement. He’s criticized state lawmakers for failing to fully fund the public school system.
But Nixon will leave office Jan. 9 and be replaced by Republican Eric Greitens.
While Greitens’ positions on many education issues remain unclear, school-choice advocates hope the new administration will mean a whole host of ideas are now on the table.
“Now that we have a new governor, I am optimistic we will finally deliver long-overdue results for the children of Missouri,” said state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat and frequent critic of Nixon.
Greitens didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment, and he was largely vague during the campaign about his position on education policy. But he did speak in broad strokes, mentioning during one of the GOP primary debates that he thinks the state needs to ensure “there are more choices for those kids who are in failing schools.”
Chappelle-Nadal has already filed a wide-ranging education bill that includes accrediting schools by individual building instead of by district. It would then allow students who attend an unaccredited school to transfer to a different school within their district or in a nearby district. If there is no room in a public school, the student would be allowed to transfer to a nonreligious private school.
Nixon twice vetoed similar proposals, saying they would drain money that could strengthen existing public school districts.
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said one idea he expects could get traction would go even further: education savings accounts.
Debit cards could be issued to parents with a certain amount of funding loaded onto the card, said Michael McShane, director of education policy at the conservative think tank Show-Me Institute. The parents could then pay tuition to a private or virtual school, buy textbooks, hire tutors or pay for any number of things approved by the state.
“Where a child lives is so tightly correlated with later life outcomes,” McShane said. “So many kids in poorer areas are zoned in to attend lower-quality schools. It’s time to decouple where a child lives and where they go to school.”
Critics say these accounts are basically just vouchers, an idea that historically has run into fierce resistance in the legislature from both Republicans and Democrats. The concern among many is that unlike public schools, private schools don’t have to accept every student and aren’t accountable to the state in ways that would ensure children are receiving a high-quality education and that funds are being used appropriately.
Additionally, students who are left behind when their classmates start transferring to private schools will have even less funding than before in their public school, said Mark Jones, political director for the teachers union Missouri NEA.
“The problem with most of these bills is they leave behind 95 percent of students in a worse situation because a lot of resources have left the district,” he said.
Lawmakers are already underfunding public education by several hundred million dollars, said Mike Lodewegen, associate executive director of government affairs for the Missouri Association of School Administrators. If some sort of voucher system is put into place, he said, students who are currently attending private school will suddenly qualify for state tuition assistance.
“If we can’t fund the system we’ve got,” Lodewegen said, “why open up a system for students who aren’t receiving state aid?”
Richardson said lawmakers aren’t trying to hurt the public school system.
“What we’re out to do is make sure everyone has the opportunity to get a quality education,” he said. “How do we make available a world-class education for every child in Missouri? We want every kid to have that opportunity.”
The state’s failing school buildings are predominantly attended by impoverished African-American students, Chappelle-Nadal said. It’s time those students had more options, not just “the failed solutions from the past.”
Lodewegen noted that in recent years, strides have been made in the state’s struggling school districts.
Last month, for example, Kansas City Public Schools scored high enough on a state-issued progress report to earn full accreditation for the first time in 30 years. The Riverview Gardens School District in north St. Louis County earned provisional accreditation earlier this month for the first time in nine years.
Even with that progress, Lodewegen said the education community is not happy with the status quo. His organization hopes to work with lawmakers to “put the power of education back in the hands of the community and cut down on over-regulation of schools and classrooms.”
Jones agreed, saying schools should be allowed to innovate.
“Let’s make sure we’re doing more than just testing these kids to death,” he said. “The goal is to get the legislature to let local districts do their jobs, not to focus on cookie-cutter approaches but rather to allow districts to be innovative and do what is in the best interests of students.”